Conflict In Kensington As Neighbors Appeal Banks’ Demolition

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Ninth National Bank | Photo courtesy of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia

Ninth National Bank | Photo courtesy of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia

The Kensington Story

Attention is being paid to the banks for another reason: they are contributing properties to the new Kensington Textile Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. The district nomination was prepared by Powers and Company and made possible through a grant obtained by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.

Forty-five mills, factories, and commercial-related buildings are listed on the register. Logan I. Ferguson, who authored the nomination, sees the historic listing as a first step towards encouraging reuse of properties and preserving industrial heritage in much the way that the councilwoman speaks. (The Buck Hosiery was to be included in the district before its destruction.)

Part of Kensington’s significance, according to Ferguson, lies in the cottage industry of trades that emerged there in the 19th century. In other established textile centers, particularly in New England, the production sequence was typically done under one roof in a single facility–spinning, dying, manufacturing–to produce a single product.

In Kensington, each mill specialized in one particular trade. Competitors in one trade sometimes even rented out different quarters under the same roof. Production could involve dozens of laborers who were independent of each other for a product to see the light of day.

Ferguson included an example of this process involving a carpet: “[A] spinning mill would send its spun yarn out to be dyed in an adjacent factory. The dye works would then transfer the dyed yarn to a carpet manufacturer. The manufacturer would outsource the carpet to a local craftsman who worked out of his home.

“The finished carpet would then be returned to the carpet factory where it would be shipped to the local box manufacturer and sold direct to a wholesaler, thus circumventing the national and regional distributors. And all of this would occur within a five-block area.”

Photo: Peter Woodall

Ninth National Bank | Photo: Peter Woodall

In 1850, Kensington accounted for nearly 40% of all textile firms in Philadelphia, employing a labor force consisting overwhelmingly of Irish immigrants. When production reached its peak just before World War I, those firms were manufacturing half of all carpets in the U.S.

Into this arrangement came a need for mill entrepreneurs to centralize their finances. Ninth National opened its doors at the corner of Front and Norris in 1885, with ten of its 13 board members representing the textile industry. Founded in conjunction with Ninth, the smaller Industrial Trust arose next door soon after.

Three other banks are also listed on the historic district. Kensington National Bank, founded in 1826, moved into its Frank Furness-designed headquarters at Frankford and Girard Avenues in 1877 (and is also listed on the City’s Register of Historic Places). Eighth National Bank, at 2nd and Girard, was built in 1870. Textile National Bank, which opened at the corner Kensington Avenue and Huntingdon Street in 1904, is currently vacant.

Ninth National and Industrial Trust formally merged operations in 1923. By that time, the facades had been redone in the unifying neoclassical style that survives today. After the decline of the industry, Philadelphia National Bank (PNB, later known as CoreStates) used the site for a branch for several decades; locals today still refer to the buildings as “the PNB.” In 1983, with the immediate area in near-total abandonment, all banking operations ceased.

When Norris Square Civic Association acquired the banks 24 years ago, the organization’s public intent was to repurpose the buildings in a way that would benefit the community. A farmers market known as the Mercado was floated for the site, and Norris Square Civic even secured a $200,000 mortgage from the Philadelphia Urban Finance Corporation for the project. The Mercado eventually opened at another location down the street and closed not long after.

Numerous source blame DeCarlo for sitting on the properties out of fear of change in the neighborhood. Indeed, she has never hidden her disdain for gentrification, guarded by an impulse to protect the neighborhood from market-rate investment.

“You can’t say you don’t want the neighborhood to change,” says Carmen Bolden, bemoaning what she considers a substandard quality of life. “It has to change, quite honestly, and by nature it will change.”

As a community leader, Bolden once carried the torch for change in the neighborhood, founding agencies that offered bilingual services in the fields of education, health and civil rights. Her detractors, however, see her differently: as a power-tripper who defrauded those very organizations. Bolden was convicted on theft and fraud-related charges on three separate occasions between 1976 and 1998, and finished her most recent jail sentence in 2000.

Bolden is up front in admitting her misdeeds, but also attributes them to a power struggle in the Latino community. “I saw myself as a voice, and they felt I shouldn’t be the only voice, and because of that struggle we lost a lot of bright minds,” she says. “Instead of remaining here, they decided they didn’t need that in their lives, and we’re still paying the consequences for that in-fighting. We could have had better political representation if we had done it right.”

An Offer to Secure the Roof and Hope in the Review Process

Ninth National Bank | Photo: Peter Woodall

Ninth National Bank | Photo: Peter Woodall

Jesse Gardner, a native of the Midwest, has been active in beautifying Northern Liberties since the mid-1990s, most notably through his designs for Liberty Lands Park. His East Kensington gallery is the former property of William Dickel, a one-time director of Industrial Trust.

Having toured the banks from the inside, Gardner has lobbied Norris Square Civic in vain to keep them from falling into further ruin. The presence of account files and confidential documents strewn about inside suggests negligence that extends beyond Norris Square’s stewardship. Still, he says his endeavors to secure the site before the sale to WCRP–even offering his services free of charge to seal the roof–were never taken up.

Gardner characterizes his views without hesitation as pro-market. (“‘Gentrification’ is another word for development,” he says. “It’s something that’s going to happen no matter what.”) Yet he resists the simplification of the narrative that pits native against outsider. At the community meeting, he says, lifelong Kensington residents spoke out about losing their neighborhood’s identity.

“They spoke, very eloquently I thought, about how their parents worked in the mills,” he recalls, reminding me that the meeting took place just after the Buck Hosiery fire and the demolition of St. Boniface, where Norris Square Civic is now planning town houses. “There was a lot of raw emotion from those who spoke, which is something [WCRP] didn’t count on.”

As the appeal nears scheduling, WCRP is hoping on one major piece to the puzzle to make their project work: the awarding of federal low-income housing tax credits through the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA). Typically, two funding application cycles are held each year, one specifically for urban and one for non-urban developments. According to PHFA, applicants for the urban cycle will know by March if they are recipients.

Industrial Trust, Title & Savings Company | Photo: Peter Woodall

Industrial Title Trust and Savings Company | Photo: Peter Woodall

A listing on the National Register by itself does not protect a building from demolition, unlike a local designation on the Philadelphia Register (which can also be a contentious and time-consuming process). However, there is one protective measure, known as a Section 106 review, that is to be conducted when federal funds are involved. Logan Ferguson likens Section 106 to an “essentially abbreviated version of a National Register nomination:” a description of the property, with photographs, is sent to the State Historic Preservation Office for review. Any demolition approval from SHPO would likely include a recommendation for remediation. In the case of the demolition of the Youth Study Center, for example, “remediation” took the form of interpretive panels in the new Barnes building describing the history of the site.

Remediation probably isn’t good enough for those who have watched the banks deteriorate through the years, but if attention to their plight spurs reinvestment in the neighborhood’s history, they say, the fight will have served a purpose.

In the meantime, Gardner says his offer to secure the roof still stands: “And I have a hundred people behind me on this. They want this [reuse] to happen.”

About the author

Christopher Mote covers stories of preservation, planning, zoning and development. He lives in South Philadelphia and has a special fondness for brownstone churches and mansard roofs.

Send him a message at: motecw[at]hotmail[dot]com



2 Comments


  1. Thank you Karen , for trying to stop the mindless destruction of these ladies in waiting. Why do some
    people fail to see the potential of grand structures to anchor a neighborhood ? With all the empty lots
    in the city , WHY do they need to inflict harm to what’s left of Philadelphia’s history? Why not build
    on all the other lots which are already mty ? Mothball ball these 2 beautys and build out the area’s mty
    lots , when population reaches critical mass on these blocks nature will take its course and SOMEONE
    will want to repurpose these gems . Perhaps one of the many institutions which don’t pay taxes in
    Philadelphia. Holding onto these buildings and not putting them on the market for sale makes me very
    suspicious . How can a group say they want to build up a community when they have no problem
    destroying its past ? Maybe their first priority isn’t the neighborhood , maybe it’s their ego ! A law should
    be past banning all demolition of any historic building , if a hardship case is made the city can offer one
    of the thousands of lots available as compensation . This would end this sad practice of destruction
    and Start the healing of neighborhoods thru out the city. I find it amusing how the city uses eminent
    domain to steal property from tax paying citizens for low income housing offering the victims market
    prices even though the don’t want to sell. REALLY ! They claim hardship on one historic building on
    a lot , give them two or three as compensation . What’s good for the goose is good for the………..
    Well you know. The lots aren’t making the city any money anyway. How can they screw the tax payer
    but not the no profit/developer ? If they wind up with more room/property by swapping out their historic
    lot for mty ones , THERE IS NO HARDSHIP TO BE MADE !!!!

  2. Too bad Kensington doesn’t have parking lots, empty lots or heinously ugly architecture to develop.

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